Attack Exposes Enemies Within
Barely nine days after PM Modi’s dash to Lahore, terrorists from Pakistan attacked the Air Force station at Pathankot, Punjab. Why did they choose to strike in Punjab and how will the Modi government react? What now for the dialogue with Pakistan? Questions remain unanswered
“It was an attack on us, mounted by our enemies across the border as well as inside the border. Make no mistake those terrorists were trained commandos,” said a rather angry and agitated Maj. Gen Afsir Karim. He did not express openly but most strategists and senior army officers feel the whole counter was ineptly planned, and badly implemented. No one expected that India’s infrastructure by now after decades of dealing with cross-border incursions and insurgencies would be unable to deal with this mayhem.
What was really alarming was his remark about enemies inside the border. There were reports that drugs money financed the operation. If true no wonder drug dealers ‘inside’ would have been involved. Drug businessmen know no barriers—neither geographical nor man-mad and this involvement of drug money is most dangerous for the nation.
We know the drug menace in Punjab and also we know of drug syndicates in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This trend of diverting money to terrorist groups is very dangerous. The distribution system of drug money—be it in millions or trillions—is extremely good but the furtiveness makes it extremely difficult to seize for police. This is why the Pathankot operation should be a warning to India to equip and streamline its counter–terrorism mechanism urgently, so that in the future, it does not become a victim of blackmail. But then the Army which is equipped for dealing with such situation was given hardly any role. Only 50 army men were requested for dealing with this problem out of 50,000 stationed army personals there. Another General said that before we start blaming anyone we must wait for a full inquiry report. Anyone who took decisions they must have been done for the good of the country, in hindsight we realise it was a wrong decision. And set up a system so that a wrong move is eliminated.
He elaborated that Pathankot is a a sensitive military station, everyone should be alert. “I would say that commanders there must have moved to counter immediately. Time is an important factor in such situations. Why did they wait for Delhi to intervene?”
Lt Gen Ata Hasnain said: “A terror strike or any other terror related activity was expected and it has happened. Apparently 4-6 terrorists sneaked across the IB in the last two or three days through the same area where the Gurdaspur-related terrorists had done so in late July 2015. They waylaid a police officer, killed another cab driver and later sneaked into the Pathankot Air Force base where four were eliminated before any major damage could be done; some security personnel also lost their lives. Air Force operational assets remained protected.
“Before analysing this event’s effects on the peace process, a little on the terror strike itself. Firstly, I refuse to call it an ‘attack’; that term is reserved for uniformed forces which do so upfront; this is nothing but a sneak attempt or a strike at the best in the most disgraceful way which only terrorists adopt. They should not be given respectability by using military terms for their action. Secondly, the terror leaders in Pakistan and elements within the Pakistan establishment were obviously extremely upset by the run of events right from the NSA talks at Bangkok and the visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister to Islamabad.
“The Modi visit to Lahore was the last nail in the coffin for them and the Foreign Secretary talks announced for 15 January 2016 had to be targeted. If the talks go through, it will be a major setback for the extremists and the terror leaders while Nawaz Sharif’s strategy would get a shot in the arm. Time was little and something had to be done; something big enough to draw attention and put tremendous pressure on the Indian government from the ground swell within India.”
The terror leadership probably presumed that just like in the case of the Peshawar air base or the naval base at Karachi, the visibility and impact of targeting such assets is larger and their security could be less alert than of the Army. On that presumption, this strike was planned in a hurry, infiltration effected and strike launched. Somewhere down the line things went wrong. Probably a navigation error forced the terrorists to hijack a vehicle, travel around to a hideout in the vicinity of the Air Force station and then launch the strike. They couldn’t get complete access and failed to penetrate the hangars or other crucial assets at the AF station having been challenged and involved in a firefight well before that. The detail is unimportant save for the aspect of inability to secure the AF station despite a definite indicator that there was terrorist presence in the area. The obvious question being asked is why Pathankot and this answer has been given many times; I will give it again.
A New Year greeting to India from Pakistan?
There was an attempt to infiltrate into the Indian Air Force station in Pathankot by suspected Pakistani militants at first light on the morning of January 02, 2016 as a New Years’ gift for India. The security personnel were alert and detected the attempted intrusion and opened fire on the intruding group. The resultant gun battle lasted for more than twenty four hours, before the group was neutralised and all the infiltrators were killed. In the gun battle four of our security personnel were killed, three during the exchange of fire and a Lt. Col. of the army on deputation with the National Security Guard, while removing a grenade from one of the dead militants. The death of the NSG officer was unavoidable, but he set an excellent example of leadership disarming the dead militant himself and paid for it with his life .
There are a number of interesting facts which have to be highlighted in this whole transaction. Firstly, a couple of days before the attack, a Superintendent of Police was held up and his cell phone taken away. This is itself very curious, because it should not have been easy to hold up a Superintendent of Police and take away his cell phone. When he heard the news of the cell phone being taken away, the gunman of the Superintendent of Police dialled the number of the cell phone and received a response- “Salam Ali Kum.” This obviously alerted the security personnel of the base. The Air Force Station, Pathankot has a sprawling campus , parts of which is wooded and this could have been an advantage to the attackers and this could have been the reason for the encounter extending to more than twenty four hours before all the militants were killed. The National Security Guard personnel and the security personnel of the Air Force should get full credit for the success of the operation. Unfortunately seven of our security personnel were killed . One can make a detailed assessment of the operation only when all the details are available, of when the contact was made, and how far they could penetrate before contact was established.
The more interesting part of this episode is the timing of the infiltration from Pakistan and the consequent attack. Is it connected with the sudden unexpected visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Pakistan when returning from Afghanistan? One point has to be clearly reiterated, though it is a very well known fact. Regrettably, Pakistan is not governed by its elected government. It is the Pakistan army who really controls the Government. My hunch is that the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) was not happy with the spontaneous visit of India’s Prime Minister to Pakistan to meet their Prime Minister. It was probably to remind both the Pakistan Prime Minister and also inform the Indian Prime Minister, that there is an underhand protocol in relations with India and this was breached. The attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot was probably on the cards, but the unexpected sudden visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Pakistan may have preponed the attack on the IAF base at Pathankot.
One very important point is how and at which point did the Pakistani group infiltrate into India. The India-Pakistan border in Punjab is very well guarded. This border has one very positive point in that along its whole length there is no village or town situated right on the border, unlike in other states where in very many places the villages and towns are located right on the border and there are gaps in the fencing in such places. However, there is quite a bit of smuggling of heroin across the border in Punjab. One of the common methods of conveying heroin is for a point to be fixed by telephone calls routed between Lahore or other towns in Pakistan and Pathankot or other towns in Punjab via cities in Europe. One can monitor calls between Indian and Pakistan towns but it is not possible to monitor all calls made via a middleman in Europe. The border is well fenced and lighted. There is heavy cultivation on both sides. It is not possible to watch every foot of the border even though it is lighted. One can watch from the Pakistan side and come up to the fence at night and throw a one kilo packet of heroin across, which lands in the maize field, and which is then picked up by a contact who is informed via Europe on telephone. The profits are enormous and the contacts can naturally help, in infiltrating a group across. There are dozens of points where there are small nullahs over which the fencing is made but can be crossed by crawling underneath. All you need is a contact on the Indian side and the heroin smuggler is the best contact for this purpose. It is only this route that an insurgent group can take to infiltrate into India. The
BSF regularly lay ambushes along the fence, varying the places from time to time But it is difficult to seal the border 100 percent.
Unfortunately in this case all the infiltrators have been killed. If one is taken alive he can be persuaded to say how and where he crossed with weapons. As far as the people are concerned, money is the grease that will help in militants crossing into India despite the fence, lighting and the deployment of troops on the border.
By E N Rammohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF.)
To plan a terror strike with infiltration of a fresh group into the Kashmir Valley or Poonch—Rajouri sector south of Pir Panjal range is ‘no go’; it is winter and there are no worthwhile objectives in the vicinity which can create a flutter as much as an air base. Jammu has enough targets including an AF station but Jammu-Samba-Kathua have been in the eye of the storm and the alert there is higher, especially prior to Republic Day. After the Gurdaspur strike in July 2015 Punjab was the appreciated target. I had assessed north Punjab in an earlier article. The reason? Simply because infiltration from south Punjab does not offer lucrative targets within a short distance. In the area bordering Jammu division, Punjab has military stations at Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Mamun, besides the AF station Pathankot. Hideouts are easier with the forested region towards Himachal and broken terrain of the Ravi River. It is a tailor made terrain for terrorist infiltration and strike us get to the other question: why was it timed now? Obviously, the events of December 2015 were not to the liking of the Deep State. Bangkok, Islamabad and then Lahore overcame the pangs of Ufa. With the changing environment after the Paris attacks and with some large heartedness on part of India, the peace process was put in place. The question on everyone’s lips through December 2015 was—“does all this have the backing of the Pakistan Army, the real controller of Pakistan’s foreign policy?”
The presumption was that it did, now that Lt Gen Janjua was Pakistan’s National Security Advisor and had himself participated in the Bangkok talks; he is also known to be close to Gen Raheel Sharif, the Pakistan Army chief. With the 25 December, 2015, surprise visit of PM Modi to Lahore, the level of seriousness went even higher with introduction of informality by the Indian side. The Foreign Secretary talks are already slated for 15 January 2016. I wrote then that PM Modi had to be lauded for his courageous decisions because the ground swell within India was only reluctantly in support. Unless Pakistan demonstrated its resolve more seriously by calling off all terrorist related proxy war acts and did more on the 26/11 cases, expectations of total support from the Indian public would be impossible. I also justified the risk that the PM was taking knowing all the time that to secure the talks from contingencies of rogue acts will be impossible.
The question which people pose to those experienced in counter infiltration operations is whether infiltration of terrorists is possible without support of the Pakistan Army or Rangers. There can be no definite answer to this. If someone wishes to clandestinely escape the virtually nonexistent Pakistan security grid on the other side of the IB, it would be possible. However, the onus of securing exfiltration from its side squarely lies with Pakistan’s security forces. How much of an effort has been made towards this is clear—almost none. When a much postponed peace process has commenced after a long hiatus and it is known that there are elements opposed to it, then surely Pakistan has to secure the process by serious efforts to prevent such incidents. It cannot resort to the age old rhetoric of home grown terrorists in India resorting to violent acts, if it wishes any movement in the right direction.
I feel it is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who is answerable and under pressure. This is not the time to be kind to him to promote his stability; in fact he needs to be savaged by the international community for his inability to rein in the elements opposed to the peace process. The Americans must read the riot act to the Army Chief who probably gave all assurance of his support during his recent US visit where the issue was extensively discussed.
So is the peace process off the rails? No doubt there will much consternation in India’s public and the political opposition. However, I have my doubt that the government would or should come under pressure. It took a calculated risk and will chart the course till when possible. It still has some leeway to exercise flexibility while demonstrating its extreme unhappiness through statements by appropriate authorities. Although Indian lives have been lost mercifully the event was prevented from spiraling into something much bigger. Loss of even a single aircraft would have symbolised much more (I hate comparing Indian lives to material but that is the reality in today’s world of information related perception).
This is one of the rare situations where the government cannot be faulted for either decision. Calling off the talks will please many at home but not the international community and many more here who feel that this gauntlet the government will have to walk. Continuing the talks will equally draw flak and support in almost equal measure. If the decision is to continue it has to be accompanied by some tough talking which is visible to the world. As a nation we have patience, loads of it, but once driven to the wall this nation also has the capability to throw everything to the winds. That is the message Pakistan hasn’t heard in a long time. Perhaps it is time to deliver it. How that is done is up to India’s expert diplomats and not less by the famed media.
By Vijay Dutt